As expected, the Chinese government on Sunday adopted a tough stance on Hong Kong, with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee issuing a decision that designates a Beijing-controlled body as a “broadly representative” committee that will nominate candidates for Chief Executive in one-person, one-vote elections in 2017.
This bare-knuckles approach is in line with an assertive foreign policy and a continuing crackdown on dissent on the mainland.
The nominating committee’s role is to ensure that a candidate must be “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong”. The decision indicated that, contrary to previous suggestions, the electoral system won’t be reformed after 2017.
The NPCSC justified its unyielding position by citing the need to maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability as well as China’s “sovereignty, security and development interests”.
This appeal to Chinese development interests is new. However, even though Hong Kong is widely seen as less important to the mainland today than it was two or three decades ago, the role played by the former British colony is still considerable.
Just last week, Li Chunhong, director-general of the Development and Reform Commission of Guangdong Province, spoke to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong and repeatedly cited the importance of the special administrative region. Hong Kong’s importance, he said, will only increase after completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
Nationally speaking, Hong Kong last year accounted for US$73.4 billion of direct investment in the mainland, or 62.4 percent of all overseas investment in China. In the last 35 years, Hong Kong accounted for 47.7 percent of overseas investment, which means that Hong Kong investment in the mainland is increasing. Of course, an unknown quantity of the “overseas” investment is probably mainland money “round-tripping” through Hong Kong to take advantage of tax laws privileging foreign investors.
So, while Hong Kong is dependent on the mainland for its economic well-being, this is an interdependent relationship and China will pay a price if things go badly in Hong Kong.
And there is a real possibility of instability and even turmoil in the coming weeks and months with protests beginning within hours of the NPCSC announcement. Organizers announced they would proceed with acts of civil disobedience, including plans to “occupy” Central, the main business district and paralyze the city.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying welcomed the decision which, he said, had laid down a clear framework on methods for selecting the city’s leader “by universal suffrage from 2017 onward”.
Only last week, Professor Wang Zhenming, dean of the law school at Peking University, argued that an imperfect electoral system should be acceptable because it can be improved in future.
Now, it seems, Beijing does not contemplate any improvement. According to the decision, the way the 1,200-member Election Committee, which elected Leung, was formed in 2012 will be the way the future Nominating Committee will be created, despite the widespread perception that the Election Committee is dominated by special interests.
The Basic Law, which the National People’s Congress enacted in 1990 as Hong Kong’s constitutional instrument, says: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
Now, China is designating the Election Committee as the “broadly representative nominating committee”. Thus, the “ultimate aim” is to be achieved in 2017. That knocks the air out of the city’s moderate democrats because no hope is being held out for future progress.
Beijing says the “democratic procedures” cited in the Basic Law mean that all candidates must have the support of over 50 percent of the nominating committee, a feat that is unachievable for any pro-democracy politician.
For China’s proposal to become law, a two-thirds majority of Hong Kong’s legislators will have to support it. This will not happen if all pan-democratic legislators stand firm in opposition, and initial indications suggest that that is the case. But such a veto won’t get them any closer to their goal of “genuine universal suffrage” since Beijing is not going to budge.
The Chinese government may think that by blocking Hong Kong’s political development, it is safeguarding both the region’s and the nation’s economic interests. But it is quite likely to have the opposite effect, with the community being more polarized and moderate democrats radicalized.
Besides, business people aren’t fearful of a few demonstrations, but they are terrified by the idea of direct political control of Hong Kong by Beijing.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.
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